Chapter 6: Inductive Movement and the Text
The preacher who is doing his reading these days has been encouraged by the fact that there are a number of recent attempts “to find a new way through from exegesis to the sermon”.1 That these efforts among biblical scholars, systematic theologians, and practical theologians are taking place has several clear implications. First, the fact that they are only “attempts”, and some of them not very helpful to the preacher, is a clear reminder that the use of Scripture by the Church in her evangelism, polemics, and instruction is a most difficult problem. The problem is as old as the Church, for there has always been a tradition preserved in sacred texts with all the uses and misuses that accompany Scripture. Jesus frequently faced the problem of being charged with flying in the face of Scripture. The “you have heard it said — but I say” format in the Sermon on the Mount is not a simple “Old Testament or Jesus” antithesis but rather a question of what is the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. And when Jesus was quizzed about divorce on the basis of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (Mark 10:2-9) , he subordinated that passage as a concession to hard-heartedness and lifted up the Genesis accounts affirming the indissolubility of the marriage union (Gen. 1:27; 2:24; 5:2) as the expression of God’s will. By what hermeneutical principle could Jesus say one text expressed God’s will while another did not? His opponents could not stand still for this. Nor was the problem solved for the Church when she could support her message not only with Psalms and Second Isaiah but with the “Sayings of the Lord”, for these Logia likewise had to be interpreted as texts. For example, Matthew’s account of the Marriage Feast (22:1-14) is quite noticeably an interpreted expansion of the earlier form found in Luke 14:16-24. Joachim Jeremias, in his monumental work on the parables, has pointed out clearly the task of the early church in interpreting the words of Jesus. It is important in studying the parables, for example, to see them in the setting of the Church and if possible in the setting of Jesus’ ministry. The difference in settings is important because the Church faced the task of taking the words of Jesus to a particular audience and presenting them as the word of the Lord in a new situation.2 It took both wisdom and courage for the Church to assume this awesome burden of interpreting, but to have failed to do so out of an overwhelming reverence for quotations from Jesus would have ended the work Jesus began. And this work of interpreting anew is not confined in the New Testament to the words of Jesus. As we will notice later in this chapter, traditions such as that of the Last Supper had to be interpreted anew in contexts that differed from the original setting (I Cor. 11:23 ff.) We remind ourselves, then, at this point that the route from text to proclamation is an old and difficult one, but not such as should discourage the preacher but rather should help him to see that interpretation is not an alien and abusive intrusion upon the Scriptures. The problem of honest and relevant interpretation of texts is imbedded within the Bible itself and is not to be looked upon as an exercise post-biblical in origin. In fact, most of the New Testament can be viewed as interpretations and re-interpretations of the tradition (note I Cor. 15:1 ff. as one statement of it) in the light of new situations faced on the mission fields of a vigorous and growing Church.
We dwell on this point because a real prophetic pulpit today waits upon the release of the minister from a shackling hyper-caution about interpreting the Scriptures as the word of the Lord to our situation. Until this release is effected, the prophetic voices will seem to be those which impatiently cast aside Scripture and tradition and speak a new word. The shades of Marcionism move lively again across the pulpit when the Church, for reasons probably sincere and rooted in a theology of the Word, is unwilling to take up the task of interpreting Scripture for specific contemporary settings. And there could hardly be any clearer go ahead signal than the recognition that the New Testament itself arose out of the continual interpretation of the Gospel for new situations. New interpretations are necessary because the new context of the hearer has to be addressed. The use of Mark and Matthew and Luke represent dimensions of this interpretation process. Or again, I Peter 1:3-4:11 probably had its original setting in a baptismal service, but in the New Testament document before us the baptismal message is interpreted for those who have already been baptized and for those responsible for their care.3 Without this continuing interpretation and reinterpretation, the text of the Gospel would be brief, old, dead, and under glass protecting it from the soiling hands of tourists.
Very likely in the early Church, those designated as prophets were engaged in this translation of what Jesus said into what the Lord says to the church in the new situation. They did their work in a church conscious of and open to the Holy Spirit, and yet a church also aware of the risk involved in speaking for the Lord. The Spirit reminds of what Jesus said but also leads through that door left open by the words, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13) A timid spirit repeats what has been said and feels secure in the continuity; a brash spirit comes up with the new and revels in the discontinuity. But the Church needs in each new context the prophetic spirit.
A second implication of the new attempts to move from exegesis to sermon is a recognition of the inadequacy of older attempts. When reading the history of interpretation of Scripture, one is permitted to smile but not to laugh at allegory, symbolism, typology, and levels of meaning, for these were sincere efforts to hold the Scripture as Scripture while insisting that the congregation deserved some relevant word for its own situation. Perhaps equally sincere but no more worthy of the popularity they enjoy are the exegetical methods common today: selection, elimination, reduction to general truths, modernizing Biblical characters through popular jargon, or archaizing the present by calling upon congregations to “go back to old Jericho for a few minutes this morning”. The preacher is not Moses or Paul and the people before him are not Israelites or Corinthians. To pretend such for homiletical purposes has about as much net gain as is enjoyed by the young man who unconsciously addresses his date as Linda when her name is Judy. Of course, it is far easier to lament the inadequacies of former or current exegetical methods than it is to suggest a better. All serious preachers are bound by the fear that in the responsible transaction of changing coinage, there may be a reduction of value.4
A third implication of the effort to find a new route from text to sermon is the understanding that exegesis has its natural and proper fulfillment in proclamation. Preaching is not an appendix, an unscientific postscript, an application totally independent of exegesis itself. The texts originated as sermonic materials and “proclamation that has taken place is to become proclamation that takes place”.5 That which came to expression in the text must now come to expression anew in the sermon. Since exegesis involves putting the text into the speech of the exegete, the message character of exegesis does not just appear later in the sermon but is intrinsic to the very nature of exegesis.6 Therefore, the exegete who denies interest in preaching may simply be wishing to distinguish himself from a body of unscholarly clerics, but if his disinterest is fundamental to his methodology, then his exegesis is a barren fig tree.
On the other hand, and this is a fourth implication of the attempts to move from text to sermon, exegesis and preaching are not wholly identical. While exegesis and proclamation admit of only relative separation from each other, still the degree of that distinction must be preserved for the health of both. The use of a text as a text implies a great deal of effort to understand it as a past proclamation. Every text demands honest historical interpretation. But the fact that it is a text of Scripture in the Church’s proclamation means that an historical interpretation of a sermon of the past is incomplete. The sermon is not in this sense, then, an exposition of the text but a proclamation of that which the text proclaimed.
This essay is concerned with this route from exegesis to sermon. In the previous chapter a general charge was made against preaching to the effect that sermons which kept exegesis and preaching clearly separate were lacking in unity and movement while sermons which achieved these by relinquishing either the text or the congregation were irresponsible. Is there another alternative? Two suggestions may help us move in another direction.
In the first place, the route from exegesis to preaching is made unnecessarily difficult in traditional practice by a radical reversal of the mental processes in the transition from the study of the text to the structuring of the sermon itself. If we keep the image of the whole process as a route, the first stage (exegesis) is like ascending a hill while the second (sermonizing) is like the descent on the other side. This shift in motion is keenly felt by the preacher, either as a sense of pleasure in only half of the trip (which half depending upon his inclination toward desk or pulpit) or an ill-defined sense of guilt because his congregation is taken only on the second half of the trip. The shift consists of a transition from inductive to deductive movement of thought. Exegesis is inductive if it is healthy and honest. The particulars of the text: its words, phrases, categories, characters, literary forms, context, writer, readers, date, place — each separately and all together demand attention and contribute to the student’s conclusion as to the meaning of the passage. If exegesis has to labor under the burden of providing particular support for a dogmatic conclusion already occupying in mind, it ceases to be exegesis. Essential to exegesis, both in method and motive power, is the thrill of potential discovery. This anticipation sharpens the faculties and moves the study to a fruitful conclusion with a quality in it of which the student can be proud. In fact, the confidence born of this exercise will later register on his hearers’ minds not as arrogance, which is usually born in a poorly hidden sense of inadequacy, but as conviction and as convincing clarity.
But all the minister has done thus far is inductive, climbing the hill. The joy of the challenge and the anticipation of the peak is dulled by the fact that he did it alone, without his people. They are not to ascend; they must descend, beginning with the summit of the conclusion of his work (his proposition or thesis) and moving down deductively to particular applications of that thesis. The preacher cannot recapture his former enthusiasm as he breaks his theme into points, unless, of course, his image of himself is that of one who passes truth from the summit down to the people. The brief temptation to re-create in the pulpit his own process of discovering is warded off by the clear recollection of seminary warnings that the minister does not take his desk into the pulpit. What, then, is he to do? If he is a good preacher, he refuses to be dull. And so between the three or four “points” that mark the dull deductive trail he plants humor, anecdotes, illustrations, poetry, or perhaps enlivening hints of heresy and threats of butchering sacred cows. But the perceptive preacher knows instinctively that something is wrong with his sermon: not its exegetical support, not its careful preparation, not its relevance. It is the movement that is wrong.
Why not re-create with the congregation his inductive experience of coming to an understanding of the message of the text? For obvious reasons it would not, of course, be an exact re-creation. Technical details pursued through books could not be similarly pursued in an oral presentation, but the minister may be surprised at the mental ability of his people to chase an idea through paradoxes, dilemmas, myths, history, and dramatic narratives if the movement of the chase corresponds to the way they think through the issues of daily life. What people resist in preaching, while courteously calling the sermons “too, deep” or “over their heads”, is that movement of thought which asks at the outset the acceptance of a conclusion which the minister reached privately in his study or received by some special revelation. Too long have sermons proceeded by that special logic which presupposes that, unlike the marketplace, office, and classroom, “in church everything is possible, and the absolutely incomprehensible becomes as self-evident as a fairy in a fairy tale”.7
It is also true that preaching that re-creates the experience of arriving at a conclusion would for the minister differ from his own study in all the ways that private experiences differ from those shared with others and in all the ways that people differ from books. The speaker himself can expect to make new discoveries in the process of sharing not simply because of some mysterious “inspiration of the audience” but because communication is fundamental to clear thinking, opening and releasing maximum powers of mind and heart.
The question was asked earlier, why not the same inductive process in delivery as in preparation rather than a broken path of private induction and public deduction? The full response to this question brings us to the second suggestion for achieving movement and unity on the route from exegesis to preaching. Bluntly stated, the whole idea of moving from exegesis to preaching is fundamentally erroneous and must be rejected to the extent that it implies an inadequate appraisal of the place of the congregation “from exegesis to preaching” puts the hearers of the sermon in the position of recipients only; they are merely the destination of the sermon.8 Such a view of the role of the congregation in preaching, Biblical preaching, lacks the support of history in that the relation of Scripture and Church is a dialogical one; lacks the support of Scripture in that the New Testament clearly demonstrates that the life and needs of the congregations addressed contributed greatly to those products we now call Books of the New Testament; and lacks the support of actual practice in that the congregation is in the pastor’s mind during, not merely at the close of his exegetical work.
Now perhaps it should be said immediately that this is not a call for exegesis that is mere problem-solving activity (as the inductive preaching of late liberal Protestantism tended to be) nor for client-centered preaching that is an exercise in self-analysis and smothering subjectivism occasionally embroidered with Scripture verses. It is, however, a call for a program of Biblical study and Biblical preaching that is more realistic and more responsible as far as the bearing of the congregation’s situation upon understanding the message of the text is concerned. Let us see in more detail what this means.
First of all, the fear of interpreting Scripture by and for a congregation as though it were a case of laying soiling human hands upon the Divine or pouring water into the pure wine must be dispelled. If this fear is born of some near-idolatrous view of the text itself, then historical criticism, whatever its faults, helps to release one from this fear. Historical criticism has brought the general acknowledgment of the historical contingency and relativity of every expression of the Word. It can be safely studied in the confidence that even among toppling preconceptions and misconceptions the benefits harvested for thoughtful discipleship will far exceed the sentimental value of the former reverential hesitation. Or perhaps the fear proceeds from a second-hand Calvinism that has darkened the air with gloomy reminders that “we are only human”. If so, reading either Testament will bring relief. The stories of creation and of incarnation not only invite every man to grapple with the Word of God; they charge him to do so.
Secondly, our membership in the Church must be accepted. This is no difficulty if one thinks of a local congregation, nor is it any more painful to affirm membership in a particular denomination or combination of denominations. It is quite another matter, however, to accept membership in the Church historic, for this means sharing in the Church which witnesses in the New Testament and to which the New Testament witnesses. As was discussed in the preceding chapter concerning Church-Scripture dialogue, this means being responsible to and being responsible for the Scriptures. It is easier to be cushioned from that responsibility by the intervening centuries, reverting to the “We” and “They” dichotomy which in all areas of life comforts “We” when “They” are in trouble. Belonging to the historic Church also means participating in and witnessing to God’s continuing activity and revelation rather than locating the time of God in the distant past or future. The congregation finds it simpler and less troublesome to believe the things God did as recorded by those few writers who survived the babel of conflicting proclamations of God’s Word and achieved canonicity than to venture some faith-decision amid differing announcements of what God is doing in our time. The preacher also finds it easier homiletics not to risk identifying God’s will with or against any current issue, but rather to locate the Kingdom of God in an ideal past or an ideal future and then regularly to chastise his people for being born too late or too soon.
Thirdly, it follows that more realistic and responsible Biblical preaching means bearing the awesome burden of interpreting Scripture for the congregation to which one preaches. This does not mean that it is the preacher’s responsibility to hand down a more or less authoritative interpretation for them, but as pastor-preacher he will lead them into the experience of hearing the message of Scripture for their situations. This calls for real courage, courage that moves ahead even while dreadfully conscious of the pitfalls of eisegesis and the thousand chances to be proven wrong by history.
In fact, this courage is rare among preachers, replaced in some by an apparent courage and in others by a reasonable cowardice that passes for humble obedience. Apparent courage is that which translates Scripture for sermonic use into the popular jargon and idiom of the day. This seems to bring the Word into our time and make the Bible come alive in our language, but the question is, has the word of promise and of judgment, of gracious offer and of crisis for the world, come through forcefully in this translation, or has the preacher simply been cleverly interesting? Reasonable cowardice that passes for obedience is seen in the practice of quoting the words of the text without translation or interpretation with that humble smile found only on the lips of servants who are delighted that messengers bear no responsibility for the contents or effects of the messages they deliver. Or if an interpretation is given (and it always is, in the very act of selecting this text, in the uses of the voice, mood, etc.) , it is identified so completely with the original text that the preacher may safely comment, “If the sermon this morning makes you angry, I am sorry, but remember that I am only bringing you His Word, not mine”. After all, should not the one commanding rather than the one executing an order bear the responsibility? So it is that the limitation of conformity to duty permits some ministers a complete freedom from responsibility! 9 By this logic the grossest evils have been committed by men who felt no responsibility for what they did because they acted in duty-bound conformity to “the will of God”. This fiction can survive even in sincere hearts. The fact is, of course, that every disciple is responsible for how he hears and responds to Christ, and the man who proclaims his own hearing in the hearing of others is doubly responsible.
To be sure, the fear of eisegesis is very real, and it often drives a preacher who takes the text seriously to a kind of objective distance from the text as a safeguard against this error. While this caution against an exegesis “colored” by the existential situation is understandable, it is nevertheless true that the present situation adds something other than “color”. Sensitivity to the concrete issues of one’s own time increases sensitivity to the issues of the text, contributing positively to the understanding of the passage of Scripture.
This fact leads to the fourth statement in explanation of the expression of “realistic and responsible Biblical preaching”: the text is to be studied and shared not in dialogue with “the human situation” in general but with the issues facing the particular congregation participating in the sermon experience. The familiar statement of Hermann Diem, “The congregation is born in preaching” is also true in reverse: “Preaching is born in the congregation”.10 One has only to listen to sermons prepared for a homiletics class with no congregation in view to realize how vital to preaching is the concrete situation. A line fastened at one end in the text but extended into the empty air at the other hardly constitutes an experience of the Word of God.
The matter to be underscored here is the concrete situation of the particular congregation addressed. It is not enough to use the expression “existential involvement” several times in the sermon. Rudolf Bultmann’s program of existential interpretation of Scripture has rendered real service to the sermon but Bultmann has not done every pastor’s homework. If the program of Bultmann is not carried to the concrete existence of a particular congregation, then we are left with a universally applicable interpretation of Scripture in terms of “the human situation”. Left at this point, the existentialist approach is properly scored for giving us only a generalized anthropos, a skeleton of human nature which remains unhistorical as long as it is not specific and concrete.11 And to the extent that the “New Hermeneutic” does not exhibit sensitivity to the ethical issues of our time in its listening to the Word of God, to that extent it also comes under the same indictment.12. The whole fabric of the social and cultural life of a person or congregation contributes to the understanding brought to the sermon and is involved in the meaning of salvation which the sermon brings. It is right that preachers be concerned that the Word of God not be hindered, but it is also right they understand that this hindrance may be caused not only by the mishandling of a text of Scripture but by a misreading of the situation of the congregation. Taking the congregation out of context is as much a violation of the Word of God as taking the Scripture out of context.
This means, then, that the sermon grows out of the dialogue between a particular passage (not a general and meaningless reference to what “the Bible says”) and a particular congregation (not “the human situation”). What comes to fruition is not just a truth but the truth for this community.13 A sermon so understood would not be the same for different congregations. The man who preaches the same regardless of who comes to hear would probably preach the same regardless of whether anyone came to hear, and may very well soon have that opportunity. To change one of the partners in a dialogue with no change in the content of the conversation is to admit to a monologue.
A fifth and final statement in elaboration of the idea of realistic and responsible Biblical preaching concerns the matter of language. Biblical preaching that is preaching is not repetition of the words of the text but a new expression of the message of the text in language indigenous to the situation addressed. Two characteristics of the New Testament establish this point. First, there is the presence on every page of the words, categories, myths, images, and technical terminology of the social, cultural, religious, and scientific life of the communities addressed. The early missionaries used these expressions in preaching because they were used every day, and they had to run the risk of being misunderstood in order to be understood. They had no pure, disembodied word to share. Second, there is the immense variety in the affirmations of the Gospels, variations dictated by concrete situations. What was the Gospel for those living in fear of demons, principalities and powers? For those who held mortality to be man’s chief burden? For those married to unbelievers? For those whose livelihood was related to the idol business? For slaves? For employers? What we have in the New Testament are proclamations to concrete situations with the Gospel as the text in each case. The text was not just repeated; it was interpreted, translated, proclaimed. An excellent illustration is to be found in I Corinthians 11 where Paul’s text is the tradition (“The Lord Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread. . .”).14 His text, translated and proclaimed for the Corinthian situation, stands now as our text for proclamation to the situation of the present hearers, a situation that will, in dialogue with the text, create a new speaking and hearing of the Gospel. It is a comfort to those who fear something is lost in translation to imagine how much more would be lost if there were no translation. And if the language indigenous to the congregation’s life seems unworthy of such a lofty task, it should be recalled that “Jesus… particularly in his parables, exalted everyday life as the ‘stuff’ of the revelatory event”.15
This understanding of Biblical preaching allows us to pause here in order to sweep aside two issues, one practical and one dogmatic, which should now cease to be issues. The practical question, long discussed by homileticians, has to do with whether one begins with the text or with the people in sermon preparation. This is an important question if the sermon is viewed as a one-way trip from one to the other. However, in the movement here recommended, the experience is not of a trip from text to people or from people to text but, as we have been discussing, both are actively involved. It might be helpful to think of it as analogous to the massive dialectic between the existential and the ontological in Martin Heidegger’s “hermeneutical circle”. His analysis calls first for looking at man’s existence; then looking at it anew in the light on an understanding of Being as the context for existence; and then correcting and enlarging in view of that context the initial understanding of man’s existence. Substitute for ‘existence’ and ‘Being’, ‘congregation’ and ‘Scriptures’ and the dialogical involvement of each in the other can be seen. Understanding the movement as dialogical should help the preacher avoid, on the one hand, making his congregation mere passive recipients of the text, and on the other, forcing the text to serve up answers to the questions of the congregation. If the matter were to be pressed further by a rejoinder to the effect that even in dialogue one partner speaks first, then the response has to be, “the congregation”. Very likely most of those who, in fear of a utilitarian captivity of the text insists on beginning always with the Scripture, only think they are beginning with the text. Every pastor knows that even with carefully guarded study hours behind locked doors, the people stand around his desk and whisper, “Remember me”. They are not intruders; it was in order to be with them that he locked the door.
The dogmatic question which this understanding of preaching regards as no longer real concerns the relation of the Word of God to Scripture. Gerhard Ebeling has clearly expressed the inadequacy of the traditional framing of the issue.
The criticism usually made of the Orthodox doctrine is, that it identifies Scripture and Word of God without distinction. And the correction then made is to say instead of ‘Scripture is the Word of God’ something like, ‘Scripture contains or witnesses to the Word of God’. In other words, to refer to a factor distinct from scripture which has to be sought within or behind it. There is no doubt some truth in that. Yet the decisive shortcoming of the Orthodox position lies in the fact that holy scripture is spoken of as the Word of God without any eye to the proclamation, and thus without expression being given also to the future to which holy scripture points forward as its own future.16
In other words, to say the Scripture is the Word of God or that Scripture contains the Word of God is to identify the Word of God too completely with only one partner in the dialogue. Word, whether it be of God or of man, is properly understood as communication, and it is rather meaningless to discuss word in terms of one person. Equally meaningless is a discussion of Word of God fixed at one pole, the Bible, apart from the other, the Church. Just, as sound is vibrations received, so word is a spoken-heard phenomenon. The Word of God, if it is to be located, is to be located in movement, in conversation, in communication between Scripture and Church. In the absence of that communication, definitions of the Word of God that say “Lo, here!” and “Lo, there!” have to do only with potentiality, not actuality. And this is affirmed in full awareness that there is a strong tradition of preaching which consistently refuses to embrace any position that implies that the Word of God is contingent, modified in any way by the situation of the congregation, or that it moves in any direction other than downward.17
Having said all this about Biblical preaching that moves inductively, how is the preacher to approach the text as he prepares for his message? First, let it be the text itself which he first confronts, not dictionaries and commentaries about the text. There will be a time for these, but not too soon. It is difficult to get the congregation and the text in conversation if half a dozen experts are already at the table. Not only the congregation but the text falls silent in such circumstances.
Second, let the engagement with the text be a lively one, with real questions being asked. When the text speaks of turning the other cheek, giving away the coat, not looking with lust, being concerned only for today’s needs, bearing crosses, loving enemies, tombs opening, demons going into pigs, Jesus ascending into heaven, or the earth dissolving in a great conflagration, what are the immediate human questions? Ministers often are too hasty to reduce all questions into harmlessness with the “Of course, we know this doesn’t mean. . .” type of comment. There is no need to protect the Bible and the people from each other. Let all faculties of mind and heart be free to apprehend and comprehend. Often a text will open up and begin to talk if it has to defend itself against another text. For example: let Paul’s frequent admonition to grow up answer to Jesus’ call to become as little children. Or conversation may be stimulated by asking if there is any truth in the opposite of the affirmation in the text. For example: Paul said, “All things are yours.” Is it also true that “nothing is yours”? Oversimplifications, hasty conclusions, obvious half-truths, and one-dimensional moralizing can often be avoided in this way.
Third, listen carefully to the text. This is very difficult to do for a number of reasons, many of which pertain to listening in general. Listening means receiving and receiving calls for a posture awkward and painful for all except the most humble. It is not only more blessed to give than to receive; it is also much easier. Listening is further hindered by the search for a sermon, a search that can easily dictate to the text what to say, or at least alter the mood of the text. An impatience for a sermon quite often fixes the minister in the mood for exhortations and imperatives, causing him to see them where they do not exist. For instance, “Blessed are the pure in heart” is an affirmation, not a command, but how many times do the great affirmations of the Scriptures come out as imperatives in the pulpit. “We must be pure in heart” is a statement entirely different from the text. Changing the mood, even if the same words are kept, is as much a misquoting as a change of the words.
Listening is also hindered by the fact that our culture is saturated with “almost Bible” that continues to pass for Scripture. The minister has breathed this same air and has been affected. Some of this floating material arose from interpretations that gradually moved from the margin of opinion into a textual certainly even though not in the text, such as Jesus ministering for three years or, while on the cross, committing his mother into the care of the Apostle John. A different type of this hindrance to careful listening to a particular text exists in the oral tradition of a harmonized New Testament. For instance, the concept of Twelve Apostles, basic to the New Israel, is very significant in Luke-Acts, but in the average Christian mind, it is assumed to be an idea of equal clarity and importance throughout the New Testament. Or again, that Christ died as an atonement for sin is often referred to as “the New Testament teaching” with no consideration of significantly different interpretations of the cross in Acts and the Gospel of John. Similarly, the category of pre-existence, or eschatological motifs, or interpretations of the resurrection are generally credited to the whole New Testament in a homogenized view, when what we actually have is a shelf of twenty-seven different works. Study of the Gospels, in particular, suffers from such harmonizing, or from the predominance of one of the Gospels in the mind of the Church to such an extent that the other three are virtually unknown. So familiar is Matthew’s account of the confession of Simon Peter at Caesarea Philippi that a use of Mark’s account, “You are the Christ” would strike the congregation as a deliberate or careless omission of part of the text. And Christ’s response to that confession according to Mark and Luke is so overshadowed by Matthew’s account that the minister’s use of Mark or Luke would in some quarters confirm suspicions of his heresy. And of course, most congregations take it as unanimous in the New Testament that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born (contra Matthew) , there was at Jesus’ baptism a public announcement from heaven as to his divinity (contra Mark and Luke) , Jesus was rejected in his home town because he was a familiar local figure (contra Luke) , Peter was the foremost apostle (contra John) , and Judas hanged himself (contra Luke, in Acts)
All this is not to deny the governing theme of the New Testament which gives it unity, namely, God’s redeeming act in Jesus Christ, nor to accent to the point of exaggeration the variety of responses to that act, simply because general themes from the New Testament have flooded our minds since childhood and erased the message of specific texts. Serious study of a single text has to work against the obstacle of an assumed knowledge of the whole. Even familiar texts, which many ministers avoid in sermons simply for that reason, are often not really understood. John 3:16, probably the most familiar, is very commonly linked to the cross as the act of God giving his Son, when this is not at all John’s understanding of God giving his Son. A preacher would render not only a real instructional service, but would have a most satisfying experience in the pulpit if he shared the unfamiliar Gospel imbedded in familiar texts. But let him beware of clever and shocking notions; the texts themselves will sustain interest if he will listen to them carefully and then share what he hears. And all temptations to chastise the people for not really knowing the Bible will be squelched by the discoveries the minister himself makes in passages he thought he knew thoroughly.
A fourth and final suggestion for approaching the text in anticipation of preaching has to do with attitude toward the minister’s own study. It is commonly known that many pastors spend more time lamenting lack of study time than in actual study. Of course, the pastor is busy, or should be, and the fact that he is no longer in the seminary library early impresses itself upon him. No suggestions will be made here about establishing priorities and carving out precious study time. Only this one sentence will be devoted to urging not only the irreplaceable importance of careful study but the need to come clear in his mind that time in study is, in a vital sense, time spent with all his congregation. They share in what goes on there and will benefit continually from it. The point more pertinent to present purposes is the minister’s recognition of the positive value for study of the Scripture that there is in the fully engaged ministry which on the surface seems to stand in the way of that study. The documents of the New Testament arose out of the church in mission, in the task of evangelizing, edifying, correcting, comforting, opposing error, and, in general, witnessing publicly and from house to house. Some writings, of course, carry more than others the sense of urgency, the noise of battle, the heat of debate, the movement of swift feet on the mountains, but they also served who gave themselves to the less exciting tasks of catechism and copying texts. To the extent that the minister gives himself to that same mission in the world, he will harvest a clarity of understanding texts that arose out of that mission. Common purposes and commitments greatly enable communication, and the minister who sits at his desk already weary from the exercise of his mission is more open and ready for dialogue with his postolic predecessors than is the man who, guilty and embarrassed, interrupts idle hours to study his text for Sunday.
It is usually the case that the man most given to his mission as minister is also the man who is most conscious of his need for more time in his study. But he is also the man who should be encouraged by the fact that the fullness of his ministry prepares him for the most fruitful use of the study time he has. In his case, the conversation between the Scripture and the Church begins immediately. The immensity of his problems makes him a willing listener to the text; the significance of his task gives him something to say in response.
1. G. Ebeling, Theology and Proclamation, p. 14.
2. J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 6th., trans. S. H. Hooke (New York: Scribner’s, 1962) , pp. 42-48.
3. Willi Marxsen, “Exegese und Verkündigung”, Theologische Existenz Heute, neue Folge, Vol. 59 (1957) , pp. 1-13.
4. Manfred Mezger, “Preparation for Preaching”, trans. Robert Kraft, Translating Theology into the Modern Age, Journal for Theology and Church (New York: Harper’s, 1965) , Vol. II, p. 165.
5. Ebeling, Word and Faith, p. 329.
6. Marxsen, op. cit., p. 50.
7. Mezger, op. cit., p. 174.
8. The view of J. J. von Allmen, Preaching and Congregation, trans. B. L. Nicholas (London: Lutterworth Press, 1962) p. 27.
9. D.Bonhoffer, Letters and Papers, pp. 2-4.
10. Mezger, op. cit., p. 175.
11. Amos Wilder, “The Word as Address and the Word as Meaning” pp. 205-206.
12. C. F. Sleeper, “Language and Ethics in Biblical Interpretation”, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 48, No. 3 (1968) , pp. 288-310.
13. Marxsen, op. cit., p. 56.
14. Robert Funk, “The Hermeneutical Problem and Historical Criticism”, New Frontiers in Theology, Vol. II, pp. 167-180 for further illustrations.
15. Ernst Fuchs, “Must One Believe in Jesus if He Wants to Believe in God?”, Journal for Theology and the Church, Vol. 1, p. 154.
16. Word and Faith, pp. 312-313.
17. Karl Barth, Prayer and Preaching (London: SCM Press, 1964) p. 71.